It's scary to think about what might happen in the hidden confines of a restaurant kitchen. You've probably had the nightmares: An angry waiter spits in your fettuccine before delivering it to your table, or a clumsy chef drops your steak onto the soiled floor tiles and sends it out anyway. Gross, right?
But hold it right there. As it turns out, there's plenty of gross stuff happening right in front of your eyes. The food you prepare in your kitchen, made from ingredients you purchased at your local supermarket, may not be much better. Our food system has gone from local and fresh to international and industrial, and the transition has created more than a few complications. It takes a lot of manpower, money, and time to keep supermarket shelves stocked with 38,000 products. While the store owners struggle to stay on top of what's new, the FDA struggles to make more regulations. And both fall short.
That said, there’s no need to settle for sub-par foodstuffs—a little knowledge goes a long way in the supermarket. Here are the 12 facts you must remember next time you set foot in your neighborhood gross-ery store.
#12: FDA inspectors are easy graders
This fall, contaminated peanuts were the source of a 20-state salmonella outbreak. Forty-one unfortunate consumers became ill before the offending products could be recalled. Scary, right? But here’s what makes it worse: Sunland food plant, the factory that processed the legumes, performed poorly in 2009 and 2010 FDA inspections, yet was allowed to continue production. Regulators suspended plant operations only after consumers fell ill.
#11: Stores sell expired food
Trust in those stamped numbers all you want, but expiration dates may not do you much good. The FDA leaves it entirely up to the supermarket to decide when to toss outdated foods, so the numbers on the box are merely a suggestion of when the food might go bad. Many responsible stores do take care to dispose of expired products, but those that don't face no legal ramifications. That means if a store wants to leave expired food on the shelf, they are well within their rights to do so.
SHOP BY DIGITS: Expiration dates aren't the only numbers you should watch for. Dangerous food dyes like Red 40 and Yellow 5 are among The 8 Ingredients You Never Want to See on Your Nutrition Label.
#10: Your deli case may be a bit too toasty
Deli meat must be stored below 41°F to remain safe for human consumption, yet the FDA reports that refrigerated cases often fail to meet this requirement. Upon inspection, convenience store cases have been found to exceed this temperature 50 percent of the time, and in some cases, the agency has discovered meat being stored above 55°F. At this temperature, pathogens including Staph and Salmonella are able to grow.
#9: Shopping carts are crawling with pathogens
A University of Arizona study found that 72 percent of grocery store cart handles are covered in fecal bacteria. In fact, the study indicated that the cart handles were dirtier than the average bathroom. The researchers chalked it up to lack of regular sanitization on the part of the stores.
#8: Your food might be on its second—or third—life
The FDA allows manufacturers to "recondition" food that they don’t get quite right the first time around. This could mean incorporating a botched batch of vanilla yogurt in with another flavor, regrinding misshaped pasta, or even heat-treating moldy food and repacking it. The idea is to minimize waste, which is good in theory, but pretty gross in practice.
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#7: The produce is riddled with pesticides
Only 0.00002 percent of produce is ever tested for pesticide residue, says the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the FDA only screens for a smattering of the chemicals routinely used by farmers. Yet even with this limited assessment, the tests still routinely turn up objectionable levels by the FDA’s own standards.
#6: Bagged berries contain mold
You would think that frozen berries would be preserved in peak condition, but the opposite can be true. The FDA maintains that up to 45 percent of frozen strawberries in every bag can legally contain traces of mold.
#5: There could be maggot particles in your macaroni
The FDA allows up to 450 insect fragments in every one-pound box of pasta. That means that if you’re like the average American, who consumes about 20 pounds of noodles every year, you could take in 9,000 bits of bug annually.
TALK S'MAC: Peruse any pasta menu and you'll likely find trouble. Between overblown portion sizes and caloric cream sauces, these bowls are often among the worst dishes. For proof, take a look at the 7 Worst Pasta Dishes in America.
#4: The shrimp is dangerous
Texas Tech researchers tested 30 supermarket shrimp samples and found three separate types dangerous antibiotics: cloramphenicol, a suspected carcinogen; nitrofuranzone, a proven carcinogen; and enrofloxacin, which disrupts the immune system. These antibiotics are used to fight disease in overcrowded shrimp farms.
#3: There are dirty hands touching your food
An observational study in the Journal of Food Protection found that food workers, including deli workers, washed their hands only 32 percent of the times they ought to. Why does it matter? Because 89 percent of foodborne illnesses are transmitted by hand.
#2: The chicken might not be as fresh as it looks
The FDA doesn’t object to supermarkets switching out packaging to make food appear fresher. For example, if a pack of chicken breasts or a tray of prepared food is starting to look old and tired, it’s entirely acceptable for the store to repack it and slap on a new date.
FOWL PLAY: Dirty supermarket birds are only part of the problem—restaurants' calorie-crusted poultry dishes are every bit as avoidable. Check out The Worst Chicken Dishes in America to discover which "healthy" dish packs nearly 1,500 calories!
#1: The meat is infectious
A study in Clinical Infectious Diseases found that of the supermarket meat samples they tested, half contained staph, including the drug-resistant MRSA strain. Researchers determined that the bacteria had built up immunity thanks to the 30 million pounds of antibiotics used in industrial farming annually. Reduce your risk of infection by cooking meat thoroughly and washing everything that comes into contact with the raw meat.
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